Why Less is Still Moore–Celebrity and the Reactive Politics of Farenheit 9/11

by Sergio Rizzo

From Film Quarterly Winter 2005-06, Vol. 59, No. 2

THE CONSERVATIVE ANIMUS toward Michael Moore’s success is to be expected. But what is the liberal-left’s problem with the filmmaker? Throughout his career, Moore’s work has garnered a host of moral judgments and criticisms from left-leaning journalists and scholars who are sympathetic to either the message or the objectives of his films, but see his tactics as, at best, counterproductive. Even in the face of Bush’s reelection and the box-office success of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), many on the left have tried, with varying degrees of success, to embrace the message (or some part of it) while rejecting the messenger. What are some of the reasons for this “liberal schizophrenia,” as the conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg labels it, and are they valid?1

Although partially true, it is not enough to say Moore’s numerous critics on the left are just signs of his success. Moore himself is partly to blame. Positioning himself as the working-class outsider, he alienates mainstream Democrats (often accusing them of being “wimps” and “sellouts”) and those to the left of the Democratic Party as well. In a guest column he wrote for The Nation, speaking for the likes of “Tony the furnace installer,” he ripped into the readers of The Nation as a bunch of “arrogant, self-righteous and dreadfully predictable” lefties out of touch with “real people.”2 In a Cineaste interview, Moore responded to the charge of being too simplistic in his films in the following manner:

The people who complain that I’m being too simplistic have usually spent too many years in school. They didn’t complete their degree in the allocated time and they have been thinking about things a little too much. They forget that some things are quite simple. Let me spell it out—Murder: bad. Feeding children: good. Some of the left intelligentsia want to complicate matters because in part they love to hear themselves talk and in part they love the mental masturbation that goes on regarding theory.3


Michael Moore at the 75th Annual Academy Awards

Michael Moore at the 75th Annual Academy Awards

The message is clear: Don’t waste your time trying to turn this boy from Flint into one of your organic intellectuals. Elsewhere, he is more forgiving toward those who “love the mental masturbation that goes on regarding theory.” But for the most part, his anti-intellectualism asserts itself as an integral and more-or-less conscious element of his working-class shtick.4

Although Moore’s anti-intellectualism is an undeniable part of the working-class persona he so successfully markets, it helps those who would dismiss his films and political vision as simplistic, when in fact they are anything but that. How can you fit a character like the sheriff in Roger and Me (1989) into a Manichean opposition of good and bad? The sheriff, once a worker on the auto assembly lines himself, has escaped that fate only to find himself with the unpleasant job of evicting laid-off autoworkers from their homes. His moral dilemma is shared by all of us who work to maintain our privileges and rewards in a dehumanizing system. For another example, consider what happens in Bowling for Columbine (2002) as Moore works through and discards his own explanations for why the United States has such a disproportionate number of gun-related deaths. His initial belief that the availability of guns is the cause gives way to a more nuanced position as he considers the example of Canada—a country with many gun owners, but without the gun-related violence. He considers other explanations, such as a “culture of fear” promulgated by the American media, but none of them solve what Moore learns is a complex problem. In Fahrenheit 9/11 there is, of course, the character of Lila Lipscomb, the mother whose son dies fighting in Iraq. With unobtrusive sympathy, Moore carefully allows the viewer to follow the mother through the painful process of moral reevaluation that her son’s death forces upon her. At all of these points in his films, Moore successfully negotiates between his roles as regular working-class guy and left-wing social critic.

These roles of regular guy and social critic are stabilized by what Paul Arthur, in “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments),” calls Moore’s “reflexive abnegation,”5 which authorizes him to reveal the truth even as it disavows his authority to do so. Speaking specifically of Roger and Me, he explains how “Moore’s social solidarity is grounded in a trope of technical awkwardness, a feigned inadequacy and victimization defined against the ruthless instrumentality of General Motors—and, by extension, Hollywood.”6 However, without the visual confrontation of some larger-than-life adversary (GM, Nike, the NRA, the Bush administration) and the implied cinematic context of Hollywood fiction, his working-class identification becomes harder to maintain in the medium of print.7

Apart from his persona’s anti-intellectual or working-class features (he implicitly and repeatedly sees the two as related), Moore’s self-centered filmmaking has other difficulties. For Moore, turning the decade of 60s on its head, the political is personal. Writing for The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar argues that Moore’s personal politics contrasts with the activism of the 60s, which was aimed at changing or getting rid of oppressive institutions, while Moore’s activism tries only to humiliate specific individuals: Roger Smith, Phil Knight, Charlton Heston, and George Bush.8 Moore’s brand of personal politics strikes a chord with many who feel lost and alienated within the increasingly intricate and impersonal institutions that dominate their lives. If one can’t beat the system, one settles for taking down its representatives in a media-saturated environment obsessed with exposure.

Many contend—and Moore’s comments endorse the idea—that Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeds because, compared to his earlier films, we see less of the filmmaker. However, we don’t see less of Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11. We see less of a specific role he has popularized—the gonzo journalist breaking the rules of staid documentary film. Certain scenes replay this familiar role, as when Moore rides around in an ice-cream truck reading the Patriot Act through a bullhorn, or when he confronts members of Congress with a petition to enlist their children in the war in Iraq. But for the most part, Moore’s onscreen persona adopts the conventional documentary roles of interviewer, explicator, and sympathetic observer. Nonetheless, Moore encourages the notion that less of what he calls his “antics” means less of him. In an interview with Gavin Smith in Film Comment, Moore says:

Harvey [Weinstein] was very disappointed that he didn’t see my mug every three minutes in the film. And I tried to explain to him that a little bit of me goes a long way. And in this film especially, just let the story tell itself. It’s clearly my voice, it’s my vision, but I just thought it was best that I keep my antics to a minimum.9

Aligning his onscreen presence with the commercial interests represented by Weinstein, Moore suggests the extent to which his image has become an almost alien force threatening the story’s ability to “tell itself” and, even, Moore’s own voice and vision. Later in the interview, he argues that his diminished presence is part of the film’s political effectiveness:

[A]nd that’s part of why I don’t think I need as much of me in the film. I don’t want the public to think that I’m the one who’s going to correct the problem. I am not going to correct it. I’m asking them to do that. I’m asking them to join with me and I’ll join with them. I don’t want them to sit there passively and watch me and vicariously live through me, sort of a, “Yeah, go get ‘em Mike!” Nuh-uh. I’m sorry. I’m not going to get them for you.10

But if Fahrenheit 9/11 represents the filmmaker’s attempt to start excising his onscreen persona from his documentaries, what he says of his next project indicates his desire to further the process: “My goal is for the camera to become the character so that you actually never see me.”11

In one sense, it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear Moore expressing a desire for the total transparency and “objectivity” of direct cinema, since, as Arthur argues, Moore and other recent filmmakers who advance their subjective presence within the documentary narrative “remain wedded to the same principles of authenticity, if not the same rhetorical codings, as earlier styles … substituting] reflexive abnegation for New Deal and direct cinema paradigms of authority.”12 Because of Moore’s celebrity, by the time of Fahrenheit 9/11 his onscreen persona can no longer sustain the myth of immediacy that documentary films traditionally rely upon.

Moore’s stardom pressures him to diminish his onscreen role in several ways. Because of his celebrity, he now has access to those who are invested with institutional power. Unlike Roger Smith, they know what Moore can do when he is locked out. Consider the affable greeting Phil Knight gives Moore in The Big One (1997), or Charlton Heston’s spontaneous invitation upon hearing the filmmaker is in his driveway in Bowling for Columbine. In contrast, in Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore goes out of his way to suggest that despite (or perhaps because of) his celebrity, he doesn’t have access to the president. At a “Bush for Governor” event, we see the filmmaker in a crowd of people calling out to Bush, who chides him, “Behave yourself, will you? Go find real work.” Bush’s response acknowledges Moore’s celebrity and suggests the candidate’s wish to avoid an interview.

When Moore does get the big showdown interview with his opponents, one unintended effect is that he personalizes the institutional forces they represent, and in the process of the interview it’s not always clear—at least not to many viewers—who is the more sympathetic figure, Moore or his opponent. On the other hand, his celebrity also undermines his direct access to less high-profile subjects or “ordinary people.” In explaining how, for Fahrenheit 9/11, he got to film the Marine recruiters as they worked a strip mall, Moore admits that he “can’t be present at some of the things [they] shoot now.”13 As Moore’s stature and technical proficiency grow, it becomes harder, if not impossible, for him to maintain, as he does in Roger and Me, a sense of social solidarity through his “trope of technical awkwardness, feigned inadequacy and victimization.”14

As a star, Moore has to look elsewhere to maintain a sense of social solidarity with his audience. Within his films, he is no longer able to maintain his persona as the little guy crusading against the big corporations. Instead, he looks for ways to do this outside of his films—for example, his acceptance speech for Bowling for Columbine at the Academy Awards and the well-publicized censorship controversy surrounding Fahrenheit9/11. Implicitly included in his critique of corporate capitalism in his earlier films, Hollywood now becomes an explicit target: “There’re six studios. I burned my bridges at two of them, Fox and Disney. So, you know, four to go!”15

While Moore is adept at playing the outsider on the inside, this can only take him so far. He still looks for a way to create a sense of social solidarity from the narrative structure of his film. Following the interviewer’s line of questioning, Moore talks about the ending of Fahrenheit 9/11 in terms of his interview with Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine:

That’s right. If I had somehow gotten an interview or a few moments with Bush—I sort of didn’t want that to happen, because I didn’t want to end the movie with the audience in a collective Bronx cheer toward Bush on the screen as he gets his comeuppance. Catharsis can be a good thing, and I think at points in this film you may feel that, but I’m not going to let you have the ultimate high [laughs] and then just go home. The catharsis has to happen on November 2.16

The amount of cathartic closure Moore’s interview with Heston gives is debatable, and so is the belief that the absence of a showdown interview with Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11 makes for a more open movie and politically responsive audience—trading in the “ultimate high” of a collective Bronx cheer for the catharsis of the voting booth. The comment, like others he makes, promotes the popular idea that reducing his onscreen presence makes the film less about him and thus more politically empowering.

Nevertheless, just how closed-ended the movie really is becomes clear when Moore explains the movie in terms of French film theory, specifically comparing Fahrenheit 9/11‘s ending to the avant-garde practices of film d’intervention.17 The point of film d’intervention, however—the way its open-ended representations of reality empower the audience—is that it encourages the viewer to see that he or she has choices in the real world. It doesn’t tell the viewer what choice to make. Fahrenheit 9/11, from beginning to end, argues that the viewer has no choice—other than the filmmaker’s: “I hope that people go see this movie and throw the bastard out of office.”18 But the notion of Fahrenheit 9/11 as a film awaiting completion in the real world is repeated in Moore’s introduction to The Official Fahr-enheit9/11 Reader, ending with: “Right now, it’s a movie that in some ways, though finished, is still a work in progress, its true ending to be written on November 2, 2004, and the months that follow. That makes all of you my cowriters.”19 This rhetoric of participation in an open-ended project flatly contradicts the movie’s polemical agenda that sees the audience not so much as “co-writers,” but more like actors waiting to complete their scripted roles.

Fahrenheit 9/11: On Capitol Hill, Congressman John Tanner (D-TN) talks to Michael Moore.

Fahrenheit 9/11: On Capitol Hill, Congressman John Tanner (D-TN) talks to Michael Moore.

The tension in Moore’s rhetoric about Fahrenheit 9/11 reflects a tension Matthew Bernstein finds in Roger and Me. Using Bill Nichols’ distinction between interactive and expository documentary modes—in the interactive mode the filmmaker is a subjective agent open to the uncertainties and vicissitudes of historical time, whereas in the expository mode the filmmaker assumes the authority of a perspective removed from the uncertainties of historical consciousness and objectifies his or her subjects in order to illustrate some preconceived idea—Bernstein argues that while Roger and Me begins in the interactive mode, where the filmmaker is shaped and influenced by the subjects he films, what follows is an expository mode, where “every encounter serves to illustrate Moore’s preconceived thesis.”20 Fahrenheit 9/11 ‘s narrative repeats a similar pattern. The movie’s introduction suggests an interactive mode as Moore’s voiceover responds to a scene of Al Gore celebrating victory in Florida with the question, “Was it all a dream?” The opening scene presents Moore as a subject in open-ended history who, like the viewer, can’t be certain about what it is he or she is viewing. Moore’s narration then draws the viewer’s attention to specific individuals in his dreamscape: “Look, there’s Ben Affleck, he’s often in my dreams. And the Taxi Driver guy. He was there, too, and little Stevie Wonder, he, he seemed so happy, like a miracle had taken place. Was it a dream?” The references to actors and entertainers emphasize Moore’s difference from them. In contrast to these and other more harmful actors (such as Bush and his administration), Moore will guide the viewer to the truth. The radical uncertainty of the movie’s beginning sets up the revelation of this truth as the mounting evidence—from the Florida vote count to the Bush family’s ties with the Saudis to the lack of WMDs—urges the viewer to accept Moore’s position: we need to “throw the bastard out of office.”

Moore’s commitment to the expository mode is found in his attempt to explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction film in his introduction to The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader:

Besides the fact that documentaries generally don’t use actors, they are a style of filmmaking that is different from fiction features in that they are written after the movie is shot. You enter the editing room with hundreds of hours of footage, and then you must decide what your story is and construct—write—it. It’s definitely a cart-before-the-horse system, which in some ways makes it much more challenging than fiction films, where the writer just tells everyone what to say. We can’t tell George Bush what to say or John Ashcroft what to sing. But what we do with what is said requires a lot of noodling—to determine where it all fits into the basic story we are trying to tell.21

The first assumption to question is Moore’s claim, presented as self-evident, that fiction films use actors while nonfiction films use “real people.” This popular distinction ignores how, through editing and scripting, documentary subjects are given roles and enact the director’s message or story. Moore indicates as much when he says elsewhere, “Bush is the star of the movie!”22 The popular understanding of real people in documentary film allows Moore to minimize its fictional or interpretive features—its “noodling” of reality—even as he acknowledges that the story “constructs” the reality that the viewer sees.

Moore uses the popular distinction between (Hollywood) fiction and nonfiction film because, consciously or not, it helps him to maintain the sense of documentary film’s access to unmediated reality. One can understand Moore’s tendency to defend his film as a “mountain of information and facts”23 when a vast right-wing assortment of cranks, pajamahadeen, journalists, pundits, and conservative advocacy groups are dedicated to attacking his work and himself.24 But as Moore emphasizes his movie’s factual accuracy it puts him at odds with his postmodern sources of authority—his recognition that “It’s all performance at some level.”25

As Moore loses the sense of social solidarity enacted through the postmodern subjectivity of his onscreen persona—his role as the author of the story who lacks the authority to tell it—he looks to replace it by preserving and elevating another postmodern feature of his filmmaking, his inconclusive or “open” endings. However, the course of political action that the pre-Fahrenheit 9/11 films inspire is tenuous and unclear. The most that Moore can say is that he hopes the audience will go and do something, “whatever that something might be.”26 Moore is far less vague about the effect Fahrenheit 9/11 will have on the audience. The film, he proclaims, “will be like Toto pulling the curtain back so the [American] people can see what is really going on, and they’re going to be shocked, and they’re going to be in awe, and they are going to respond accordingly.”27 However, the relative purpose of Fahrenheit 9/11 ‘s political message, compared with Moore’s other films, has less to do with his presence in the film or its unfinished ending than the film’s target. A standing president during the election season, unlike the CEO of GM or Nike, or the Chairman of the NRA, is subject to the will of the electorate—unless the Supreme Court says otherwise—and affords viewers specific and broader courses of action.

And what the audience did was impressive. Beyond its ability to galvanize the base of the Democratic Party—and despite attempts by the Bush reelection campaign to characterize the movie’s audience as limited to New York and L.A.—the movie drew crowds in red as well as blue states and served as a fundraiser and motivator for the Kerry campaign.28 Such a response should qualify concerns about Moore’s political satire as too cynical and fostering hopelessness from those who find him too postmodern,29 or those like Bernstein who find him not postmodern enough. And yet, Moore may be part of a larger evolution in public discourse that must be engaged in theoretical—as well as practical—terms. Drawing a distinction between the historical consciousness of documentary film and the ahistorical simulation of reality TV, Bill Nichols points out:

The danger exists that actual struggles will take their cue from the rhythms of TV: specific issues and events will become a target of concern or outrage; emotions will wax and wane in keeping with the dramatic curve of televised coverage…. Coalitions, support groups, ad hoc committees and rallies will spring up. Collective identities take shape and a common agenda will emerge. But the specific event will eventually reach a point of resolution. The forces once mobilized with fervor and outrage will disperse, potentially available for the next contingency. Such a pattern constructs a reactive politics that may mirror, in disturbing ways, the very forms of absorption and distraction that should be among its primary targets.30

Nichols’ distinction helps us to appreciate both the success and failure of Fahrenheit 9/11. The film successfully mobilized “fervor and outrage” in response to the contingency of Bush’s reelection, shaping a common agenda: vote for the Man Who Isn’t Bush. Nonetheless, the “reactive politics” of Fahrenheit 9/11, both in terms of its message and method, revealed its practical and theoretical limitations.

On the practical level, the message of the movie, which the Democratic Party at least tacitly adopted, was unable to win. The truism proved correct. You have to give voters something to vote for, not just against. Of course, the Democratic Party tried to give the voters something to vote for. They attempted to incorporate Moore and his message into the conventional campaign strategy. As Chris Lehane, the Democratic strategist hired by Moore to handle publicity for Fahrenheit 9/11, expressed it: “[Moore] is doing the heavy lifting and making the negative arguments against Bush …while allowing [Kerry] to focus on his positive message.”31 However, the spectacular success of Moore’s negative message (and images) dwarfed Kerry’s “positive message,” yet it was still unable to surmount the positive portrayal of Bush as a leader winning the war on terror disseminated through Republican campaign ads, the Fox News network, and news coverage of the presidency that traditionally favors the incumbent.

On the theoretical level, the movie cannot interrogate its own reliance on the media practices that it exposes and questions. One of the movie’s strengths—perhaps more compelling even than its message about Bush—is the way it attacks the gross failures of the mainstream media coverage of the 2000 election and the war in Iraq. So Moore reveals what television coverage sanitizes, leaves out, or minimizes: the makeup applied to Bush and his cabinet members before going on TV; the eggs thrown at the presidential motorcade; the African-American members of Congress protesting the disenfranchisement of their constituents; soldiers hyped up on heavy metal and destruction; prisoner abuse; children with ghastly wounds; grieving mothers. All these images are true and need to be seen. But, ultimately, they don’t go beyond a reactive politics that only partially challenges the “forms of absorption and distraction that should be among its primary targets.” Moore is interested less in decoding the television news and the dehistoricizing power of its images than he is in creating competing images.

George W. Bush reads “My Pet Goat.” © Photofest)

George W. Bush reads “My Pet Goat.” © Photofest)

Moore is quite right to claim the TV news doesn’t “run Bush the way he really says things. They filter it, they cut it together, and they do their best to make him look presidential and somewhat smart.”32 But in exposing their filtering, Moore claims to show “Bush unfiltered.”33 The message to the viewers is that they can’t trust television, but they can trust Michael Moore. Somewhat ironically, they can do this because, unlike the television reporter who claims to be an “objective reporter with no feelings or opinions,” Moore admits his bias, “I’m upfront with what I believe. You know right from the get-go where I’m coming from.”34 But Moore’s subjective reporting, for all of its candor, rests upon the same assumption made by objective reporting, that at some fundamental level one can separate “facts” from “opinion.” So Moore brags, “I don’t get sued because my facts are correct. I libel no one. My opinions are my own and they may or may not be correct, but let’s have that debate.”35 The belief in a set of correct and coherent facts that precedes debatable opinion is also what informs the claim Fox News makes to transparency: “Fair and Balanced. We Report and You Decide.”

Just how vulnerable the images (if not the message) of Fahrenheit 9/11 are to the “absorption and distraction” of television was made apparent a couple of days before the election, not long after the ethereal image of Osama bin Laden appeared in a video of his own making. He ridiculed Bush by apparently referencing a scene in Moore’s movie: “It appeared to [President Bush] that a little girl’s talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God.” Initially, as Democrats and Republicans scrambled to spin bin Laden’s announcement, not much was made of the reference to Fahrenheit 9/11, that is until New York mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared on Tim Russert’s Meet the Press (31 October 2004). “But [bin Laden] certainly wants Bush out of the White House,” Giuliani reasoned, adding, “[bin Laden] went on and repeated Michael Moore’s diatribe against President Bush almost word for word. As if he watched that movie and had been influenced by it in some way.” With skillful opportunism, Giuliani linked Moore with bin Laden, trying to neutralize both Moore’s critique of Bush and the video’s reminder that the president had failed to capture or kill bin Laden. Giuliani felt the point bore repeating: “Instead of being able to attack us, thank God, now what [bin Laden] has to do is reduce himself to making some kind of political documentary [with laughter] repeating Michael Moore’s criticism.” After suggesting Moore’s unpatriotic “diatribe” may have given unintentional (let us hope) aid and comfort to bin Laden—raising Moore to the level of the Father of Terrorism himself—he reverses the relationship in the second reference and reduces bin Laden to Moore’s level—the Father of Terrorism becomes merely a maker of political documentaries. The political filmmaker is as bad as a terrorist; and yet the terrorist is only as bad as a political filmmaker. The contradiction indicates the power of the image, a power that ultimately must be denied.

From innocent home video to scathing blockbuster polemic to terrorist propaganda to Republican spin, one is struck by the inherent instability of these proliferating images—how quickly they can be appropriated to serve such vastly different purposes. In the face of such radical uncertainty, one can only look back in wonder at the early days of film and the utopian aspirations of someone like Bolesaw Matuszwski, who pioneered the archiving of film for historical documentation. It was his belief that film evidence would one day “shut the mouth of the liar.”36 Despite Moore’s best efforts to do just that, it is unrealistic, although understandable, to expect that he could—an expectation the filmmaker wasn’t reluctant to encourage. Although we should congratulate and thank Moore for what he gave us, we should maintain a healthy skepticism toward it as well.


1. Jonah Goldberg, “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” National Review (26 July 2004). Periodical Abstracts, via Statewide Illinois Library Catalog,

2. Michael Moore, “Is the Left Nuts? (Or, Is It Me?),” The Nation (17 November 1997). Academic Search Elite, via EBSCO Host,

3. Dan Georgakas and Barbara Saltz, “Michael and Us: An Interview with Michael Moore,” Cineaste, vol. 23, no. 3 (1998). Periodical Abstracts,

4. Given the way Moore uses his working-class history to defend himself from attacks, but also to launch them, one should look at the sources Moore claims for it growing up in Flint, Michigan. What one finds is that his father’s lifetime spent as an autoworker and his mother’s job as a clerk provided a comfortable lifestyle for Moore and his two sisters. John Lusk, who went to high school with Moore, describes the suburb he grew up in as “lily white … solid middle class. It was idyllic.… But you’d think listening to Mike [that he] lived in the pits of the Flint depression.” (Lusk is quoted in Matt Labash’s article “Michael Moore, One-Trick Phony,” The Weekly Standard [8 June 1998].) At the very least, one should subject Moore’s working-class persona to the same skepticism that his films use in unmasking CEO’s, movie stars, and political leaders.

5. Paul Arthur, “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments),” in Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov (New York: Routledge, 1993),133.

6. Ibid., 130–31. Not all viewers were willing to play along with Moore’s “feigned inadequacy and victimization.” Matthew Bernstein cites Richard Schickel’s review of Roger and Me in Time: “‘Far from being a hick, Moore is an experienced professional journalist who knows perfectly well that getting in to see the chairman of anything without an appointment is virtually impossible.’” But Schickel’s huffy refusal was the rare exception. Quoted in Matthew Bernstein, “Documentaphopia and Mixed Modes,” Documenting the Documentary, ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 408.

7. Tellingly, it is in his books where his working-class performance strains credulity the most, as when, albeit as a joke, he tells the reader to overlook grammar errors he has made or he “confesses” his lack of higher education. It is also in print that his rhetoric reveals the stress of negotiating between his roles as working-class regular guy and left-wing social critic. Take, for example, this schmaltzy and forced apology that comes after a scathing denunciation of the United States in his book Stupid White Men: “I hate writing these words. I love this big lug of a country and the crazy people in it.” See Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (New York: Harper Collins, 2001),93.

8. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Populist,” The New Yorker (February 16 and 23, 2004): 132–45.

9. Gavin Smith, “The Ending Is Up to You,” Film Comment (July/August 2004): 22.

10. Ibid, 26.

11. Ibid.

12. Arthur, 133.

13. Quoted in Smith, 26.

14. Arthur, 130.

15. Despite Moore’s professed concerns about finding a distributor for Fahrenheit 9/11, Time reports that Harvey Weinstein, who picked the film up after it was dropped by Disney, had quite a different response to the controversy surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11. On the night of its premier at Cannes, the article says, Weinstein “paced nearby and chortled, ‘They say I’ve lost my edge? Have I lost my edge?’ He had not. He spent the rest of the week negotiating with a flock of U.S. distributors hoping to profit from the film’s marketable notoriety” (“The Art of Burning Bush,” Time [May 31, 2004]. Periodical Abstracts,

16. Quoted in Smith, 25.

17. Ibid., 26.

18. Ibid., 22.

19. Michael Moore, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), xvii.

20. Bernstein, “Documentaphopia,” 409.

21. Moore, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader, xvi. The distinction that fiction films are written before they are shot whereas nonfiction films are written afterwards also elides how interpretation mediates the real-life material that documentaries are presumed to give unmediated access to. Moore’s claim, “We can’t tell George Bush what to say,” is particularly unreflective given a scene that the movie made famous. Using footage from an amateur video of the president made while he visited elementary school children for a photo-op in Florida, Moore exposes the president’s painfully evident stupefaction upon hearing of the 9/11 attack. In Moore’s reconstruction of the scene, he skillfully manages to put quite a few words as well as images in Bush’s mind, if not his mouth. While the scene in the Florida schoolroom does this explicitly, it’s no less true for other scenes where Moore uses Bush’s own words on and off the record—jokes made at a fundraiser dinner, a quip on the golf course, or the contortion of a new meaning out of an old saying (as only Bush can). In all these scenes, Moore can and does “tell George Bush what to say.”

22. Daniel Fierman, “The Passion of Michael Moore,” Entertainment Weekly (16 July 2004). Online:

23. Moore, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader, xvi.

24. The rabid Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, by David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke, is a case in point. Even conservative readers who reviewed the book on a Website selling it ( were disturbed by the authors’ tone. While more restrained, Fahrenhype 9/11 (Alan Peterson, 2004), the first of several movies rebutting Moore’s film, suggests it only wants to confirm what people already knew with the tagline, “You knew it was a lie…. Now you’ll know why.”

25. Quoted in Smith, 25.

26. Quoted in Georgakas and Saltz.

27. Quoted in Jason Zengerle, “Crashing the Party,” The New Republic (19 July 2004). Periodical Abstracts,

28. MoveOn.Org used the film as an organizing tool, hosting more than 4,000 house parties across the country and drawing some 55,000 people. The National Education Association showed the film to its 11,000 members at its annual convention, as did the NAACP. The Congressional Black Caucus held a series of events around Fahrenheit 9/11. At a VIP screening in Washington, D.C., the movie was attended by prominent Democratic members of Congress. Early on, the Kerry campaign kept its distance from the film, but switched track when they invited Moore as a speaker to the Democratic convention. Perhaps this decision was influenced by the fact that the campaign scored a two-day fund-raising record of five million dollars, via the Internet, during the movie’s opening, causing Time reporters Desa Philadelphia and Jeffrey Resner to speculate, “Moviegoers may be plunking down their $9 at the multiplexes, then going home and e-mailing more money to the Man Who Isn’t Bush.” See Desa Philadelphia and Jeffrey Resner, “The World According to Michael,” Time (12 July 2004). Periodical Abstracts,

29. See, for example, Kevin Mattson’s “The Perils of Michael Moore: Political Criticism in an Age of Entertainment,” Dissent, vol. 50, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 75–80.

30. Bill Nichols, Blurred Boundaries (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 60.

31. Quoted in Dan Gilgoff and Michael Tobin, “Moore or Less,” U.S. News & World Report (12 July 2004). Periodical Abstracts,

32. Quoted in Smith, 25.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Quoted in Fierman.

36. Quoted in Erik Barnouw, Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press), 29.

Sergio Rizzo is an independent scholar who teaches American literature and popular culture; his current work focuses on the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California.